John Roberts interview: ‘In and out of harmony over time.’

25.01.11

A twinkling fragment, lilting piano, a bath of crackling static, the track begins to judder, there’s a moment that is almost a pause – not silence, it won’t let you get away that easily – a pulse kicks in, and Lesser, the opening track on John Roberts debut album ‘Glass Eights’ is on it’s way. For it’s entire running time, it holds a listener’s interest like no other album released last year. From the melancholy drive of Dedicated, to Porcelain’s bubbling rhythms, the carefully treated piano atmosphere of Went, through to final track Glass Eights’ peculiar playful motion, culminating in rich, moody strings.

‘Glass Eights’ was released on the Hamburg deep house label Dial Records. The Ohio-born John Roberts signed to the label back in 2008. Before then, he’d grown up in Cleveland, before moving to Chicago to study graphic design and fine art. He’s also spent time in New York, and is currently based in Berlin. His early releases on Dial – the ‘Hesitate’ EP, ‘Blame’ on Dial sub-label Laid, and ‘Mirror’ – sit comfortably within the label’s carefully curated catalogue of mellow house grooves. But you can hear hints of a very singular aesthetic steadily rising to the surface. Maroon off ‘Mirror’ is one to pin point, with it’s odd rhythms and neatly stumbling forward motion wrapped up in beautifully textured atmosphere. Or Pruned off the same EP (and would also make it onto ‘Glass Eights’) almost orchestral build. Blame, where the track’s club muscle is offset by crumbling static and carefully deployed moments of off-kilter sound. Perhaps it comes as a result of having travelled a lot, of being from somewhere that is maybe outside the norm, but while it works in that context too, John Roberts sound reaches further than the dance-floor. In the move from the single and EP form (forms linked to the club), to the album there’s a sense that he’s arrived at something very special. The mixing of electronics with older instrument sounds, the delicate warmth with which the piano is folded in, the moments of imperfection, all mesh together into a record that is warm, personal, and incredibly captivating because of it.

He’s currently keeping busy touring (he’ll play London’s XOYO on February 18th), but we emailed back and forth a little towards the end of last year, and he explained something of the formation and development of his sound and working methods.

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How did you first start making music?

When I was a teenager I started ‘borrowing’ a lot of equipment from this store Guitar Center. I used to buy a synthesizer or sampler, record with it for a while, and then go return it and get the money back. I couldn’t actually afford the instruments but Visa was kind enough to provide me with a credit card to temporarily purchase them. I really had no idea what I was doing and tried a lot of different ways of recording and styles of music before landing on anything that actually sounded decent. I eventually started using this sort of basic tracker sequencer to program everything, which was really daunting to learn at first, but I eventually grew to love it and I still use it now.

What kinds of different ways and styles of recording were you trying out? Have any of them had a lasting effect on how you make music now?

It was mostly just experimenting with the different instruments and recording devices that I had around. At that point I just had this small Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard, a Fender Stratocaster, a snare drum, and some tape players. I was usually routing everything into the computer one instrument at a time, or trying to record things with a micro cassette recorder. I had no idea what I was doing and the final songs were always pretty disjointed, but I had a good time with it. I don’t think I can consciously pinpoint any methods from that period that I still use now, but I think wading through all of those mistakes was important in some way.

“I don’t think I can consciously pinpoint any methods from that period that I still use now, but I think wading through all of those mistakes was important in some way.”

So you grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Has that affected the way you make music, coming from outside of any obvious dance music heartland?

I think so, definitely. Especially when I was first starting out, there was no one around me that was making music so I didn’t really have any formal instruction insofar as what might be the correct or traditional way of doing things. This was something that was really frustrating for me at the time, but I think in the long run it worked in my favor. I was always wishing that someone would just come over and tell me what I needed equipment-wise or how I should set everything up for recording, but I think eventually you realize that there isn’t really a correct way to do anything and developing a system that works for you personally is the best part.

What system do you find, as you say “works for you” now? Is it a system that has become more complex over the years?

The core of what I’m doing still revolves around the Tracker program that I’ve always used. However, I think my way of working with it has definitely gotten more complex over the last few years as I’ve become more comfortable with it. I’m now much faster at using it in conjunction with live instruments, and also syncing it with drum machines in a sort of strange way that probably doesn’t make tons of sense.

From what I can tell you seem to have traveled a lot, lived in different places. Do you think that comes across in the music you make?

I think that there are definitely elements that I’ve held onto from each place that I’ve lived that you could possibly pick out, but I’ve always tried to make a conscious effort to use those influences to work towards creating something new rather than just re-presenting them. Although, I’d really like to live somewhere less typical for a while and try to make a record there to see how evident that type of influence might be in the end.

In terms of songwriting, how do most of your songs start out and then develop?

A lot of the songs are initially based on samples, so I try to spend a good amount of time in used record stores looking for those. After that I usually go home and cut up the samples and then start trying to combine them in different ways. I try to form some sort of loose drum loop or melodic portion and then try to play different instruments on top of that in the studio. At this point everything usually takes off in a direction that I didn’t have in mind at all in the beginning.

“I try to form some sort of loose drum loop or melodic portion and then try to play different instruments on top of that in the studio. At this point everything usually takes off in a direction that I didn’t have in mind at all in the beginning.”

Did you have any formal musical training?

I studied the violin for ten years when I was younger, starting from the age of five. I later played the drums which I really liked, and also the guitar but I was never very good at it. I’m really thankful that I had the opportunity to study those instruments and I think it has only positively impacted what I’m doing now. It has sort of allowed me to think of the creation of a piece of music from a number of different perspectives.

Who is the audience you imagine for ‘Glass Eights’? Is it made for a club, for someone to listen to on headphones…

I really wanted the record to be able to function in both realms equally. I wanted it to be interesting enough to listen to at home but I also didn’t want to exclude people that might be interested in playing it in a club, since I am coming to it from a dance perspective. I think working within a house music framework but also in an album format can be really challenging because they sort of have almost inherently opposite goals.

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Do you have a particular mood or feeling you are trying to evoke in mind when you write a song?

In the past I’ve usually just tried to let each song function as a direct reflection of how I’m feeling that day or that month. I’ve found this to be the easiest method of producing music because you aren’t working under any false pretenses.

I want to ask about your use of the piano. It’s an instrument that has been used to make music for centuries. What appeals to you about using it?

I think I’ve just always been really fascinated by the piano. In a lot of ways it seems like the perfect instrument, but maybe that’s just because I don’t really know how to play it. I love how many options it has melodically and percussively. It’s also an instrument that has been in my life since I was really young so I feel really at home when I hear it. Both of my parents played it, so I used to listen to them practice at home and go with them to their piano lessons every week. I think that’s why I ended up using it so much throughout the album, because I had such a positive association with it when I would re-listen to the recordings.

‘Glass Eights’ contains a lot of instruments that aren’t electronics. Is the contrast between electronic and more organic sounds something that interests you?

Usually I’m less interested in the contrast between electronic and organic sounds and more interested in using drum machines and synthesizers in congruence with organic sounds. I really like the idea that these electronic instruments were originally made to emulate the sounds of actual instruments, and I think it’s interesting to try to work with them in a less overt way sometimes, where you can’t always tell if they are electronic or not. I always think about this when I listen to something like a late 70s disco track that use synthesizers, because I think they really just used them as normal instruments. Sometimes I’ll get confused if I’m hearing a synthesizer or a guitar and I think that’s really amazing.

I read one review that said there was something “almost symphonic” about your compositions. Is that intentional?

I don’t think it’s totally intentional, but with this album especially I got really excited about trying to create more complex melodic structures. I tried to have lots of instruments playing off of each other and going in and out of harmony over time. I guess maybe I have some natural inclination towards this type of structure from playing in an Orchestra when I was younger‚ I’m not sure. I think there is something really satisfying about hearing extended harmonies between lots of different instruments.

“I sampled a lot from dusty records and used some older broken drum machines, so with those things came a lot of inherent noise. I think it’s nice to leave those types of artifacts in because it creates sort of a side narrative to the actual music sometimes.”

One thing I really like about the record is some moments of imperfection. The crackles and hisses, elements that sound slightly ‘off’. Were those consciously placed into your music, or where they things that just happened and you decided to leave in?

Thanks. I guess I’ve always preferred listening to records with imperfections, so I thought that I would allow myself to leave some of those in as well. I sampled a lot from dusty records and used some older broken drum machines, so with those things came a lot of inherent noise. I think it’s nice to leave those types of artifacts in because it creates sort of a side narrative to the actual music sometimes. You can kind of follow how a person made an album in a more intimate way when you hear the mistakes they made along the way or their environment in addition to the music.

What things outside of music inspire you? I was thinking about film scores. Those always strike me as being very emotionally intense, yet in quite an understated way, which is something I definitely get from your music.

Definitely! I’ve been listening to one a lot lately by Wim Mertens for a film called ‘The Belly of an Architect’ by Peter Greenaway. When I was younger I used to get a lot of them on CD from this mail-order club that used to repeatedly offer trial memberships that for some reason allowed you to choose five to ten discs for free. My favorite was the score to A Clockwork Orange. It was written mostly on analogue synthesizers by Wendy Carlos.

John Roberts will play BleeD at XOYO on February 18th, go here for tickets

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